Marv Levy wasn’t about to fake it. Oh, he still loves the Bills and roots from afar. But he’s not consumed with the details. He said he couldn’t name half a dozen of the players. At 95, Levy is too busy reading and writing and going for long walks with his wife and spending time with his two grandchildren.
But as we approach a new NFL season, Levy is certain of one thing: His former team is in very capable hands under young head coach Sean McDermott.
“I’m very impressed by him,” Levy said early this week from his home in Chicago. “I’ve studied a lot of what he does. I think they are definitely heading in the right direction. Sean is the right guy.”
Levy’s wife, Fran, jumped on the line and echoed her husband’s regard for McDermott, who at season’s end will be the first Bills head coach since Marv to lead the squad for four full seasons.
“We love Sean McDermott, really,” she said. “He calls Marv all the time. He really likes Marv. Other coaches didn’t want to associate with anything Marv did and his teams, the Buffalo Bills of the Eighties and Nineties.
“But Sean McDermott has embraced Marv. We feel so good about this.”
Levy tried to shush his wife when she mentioned the way some of his Buffalo coaching successors have kept their distance from the Hall of Famer. It has never been Marv’s style to boost himself at the expense of others.
But it’s wise of McDermott to show Levy the deference due a legend. At 46, he is not yet half Levy’s age. Sean is always seeking an edge, and why not consult a man who understands the nuances of football, and has an abiding love for the town and the fans who cherish the glory years and look to Levy as a hero?
The Levys get the special bond that exists between the Bills and their fans, who are being recognized as some of the best in the country. In fact, a lifelong Bills fan named Rich Luchette organized a petition to have the stadium named for Levy after New Era abdicated the naming rights.
Luchette’s petition praised Levy for “attributes of decency, resilience and an intellectual dexterity that is too rare in today’s NFL.” It gathered thousands of signatures, but had little chance of succeeding. Still, Fran Levy heard about the campaign and had Marv send a thank you to Luchette on social media.
“I’ve coached in a lot of places,” said Levy, “and I don’t just say it to win their approval. The Buffalo Bills’ fans are unique. They’re so doggone supportive. They help you rally back. Yeah, a lot of times they’re critical. The media is critical — you know that drill.”
Bills fans should know that Marv, who turned 95 in August, is happy and healthy and walking near his condominium in Grant Park in Chicago, overlooking Lake Michigan. He’s living as normal a life as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s stunning,” he said. “At 95, I’ve lived through some very unusual times. I grew up in the Depression, World War Two and so on. This is right up there with the totally historic eras in American history. It’s a terrible doggone thing.
“We’re careful. We wear the mask when we’re out. We will go out for dinner, but we’re sitting in a well-spaced area and everything else. We’re trying to follow almost all of the heads-ups on what you should do. We’re not confined to the house all day, every day. No.”
The pandemic has taken its greatest toll on the elderly. Talking to Levy, whose mind is still sharp as a razor, you get a renewed appreciation for how intellectually capable one can be at an advanced age. He does feel blessed.
“Very much so,” he said. “I wish my hearing were better. I understand that at 95 I’m in better health than most people my age. I can still get out and get an hour’s walk in every day. I’m not running anymore. I still work the weights, not heavy but I try to stay active, physically and mentally.
“I do a lot of reading. I’d like to write another novel. I’m not sure about what. I’m playing around until the light goes on all of a sudden and I say, ‘That’s it.’ I like to write because I like to write (he has written a memoir, a Bills history book, a novel, a poetry collection, and a Chicago Cubs picture book).
“So I’ve been active. We’ve got one daughter, Fran and I, and two very young grand-kids (12 and 6, from her previous marriage) who live in the Chicago area. We spend a lot of time with them.”
Marv has a legion of fans. One of the biggest is the fellow Chicago native he met by happenstance in a Chicago restaurant some 36 years ago. His wife.
“I wanted to interject one thing,” Fran said. “Marv walks an hour every day, in Lincoln Park or in the neighborhood. We have gorgeous neighborhoods. He walks home with three or four brown grocery bags from the Big Apple local grocery store. He carries groceries home every day.
“Marv is amazing. What 95-year-old carries big bags of groceries home, with canned goods and milk? Yes, sometimes four bags, two in each arm.”
What’s his secret? “I don’t know,” Fran said with a laugh, “but I’m trying to find it out. He keeps bugging me to walk and exercise. He drives me a little crazy.”
“I call her my offensive coordinator,” Marv said.
As Fran recalls, it almost didn’t work out. She thought Marv might be too old for her. When they met, she had just turned 40 and he was 59. She was taken by his charm, looks and wit. But it was a bit of an age difference.
“I was attracted to him; he was attracted to me,” she said. “There was a 19-year difference. It was important to me that he wasn’t 20 years older. If he had said he was 60, as charming and handsome and wonderful as he was, he might have been out.”
“What if I was 60 now?” Levy said.
“Well, you’d be a younger man, which is great,” Fran said with a laugh.
As it turns out, being 60 was a professional issue for Levy back then. When he was hired by the Bills in 1986, he was 61. But he was listed as 58 at the time. For years, his biography said he was born in 1928, not 1925. He later admitted that he felt teams would shy away from a man who had reached the old age of 60.
The idea of 60 being too old seems silly now, with Presidential candidates in their late 70s. It’s amazing to think it’s been 25 years since Levy was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the summer of 1995. He left the team briefly to have a procedure and led the Bills to a 10-6 record. They won a playoff game against Miami (in Don Shula’s final game). They haven’t won a playoff game since.
Levy was 72 when he retired after the 1997 season. He admits he quit too soon. “About a year or two after I retired, I realized I would have loved to go back,” he said. “But it wasn’t meant to be, so we did other things.”
At 80, he became the general manager of the Bills for two years. It did not go so well. At the time, it was assumed that Levy would rather have been coaching, which was his true calling. He would have done it if they asked, and would he have been any worse than Dick Jauron?
So yes, it makes sense for McDermott to seek the advice of the last man to coach the Bills to a playoff victory, a Hall of Famer who is more than twice his age and possesses the wisdom of a long life well-led.
“I’ve talked on several occasions with Sean on the phone,” Levy said. “He’s probed me a lot on how we approached things. I’ve been complimented and pleased to talk with him about it.”
Levy always talked about intelligence and competitive character, qualities his Bills teams had in abundance. McDermott has tried to put together a similar squad, one that competes hard, has a powerful team bond, and appreciates the connection it has with the community that supports them.
The new coach will take any advice he can get if it makes his team better. He’s smart enough to know that the best Bills coach ever still has a lot to give.